July 15, 2019
By Steven Johnson
I probably looked like a kitten fixed on a piece of string as I intently watched jiggling rod tip and prepared to pounce.
“Wait or you’ll yank it away,” my buddy warned with a patient smile. “When a rod really bends, just start reeling as you pry it from the holder. The fish will be hooked.”
Waiting was admittedly tough for me. We’d spent at least half an hour looking at spots with electronics and nearly as long getting anchored right, baiting lines and putting out a spread. Fortunately, the wait was short. Soon a rod bowed decisively and stayed bent, and by the time I got the rod from the holder the fish was solidly hooked. After that, the action never slowed for long.
An anchored approach to summer channel catfish allows you to set up strategically to put baits in high-percentage places and zero in on the zone as the day or night progresses. It also removes some of the variables that come with mobile approaches such as drifting.
Anchoring for cats is not a random game of casting out lines and hoping catfish show up. Properly executed, this approach begins with careful consideration of locations and often includes time spent studying spots with electronics.
FINDING SUMMER CATFISH SPOTS
Good summer locations take many forms, but the biggest common denominator is the availability of shallow- and deep-water access in the same general area and a natural bridge from one to the other. Examples include long points that connect flats with deeper water, humps that rise near main channels, hard bends in a river channel with deep water on the outside and shallow water on the inside bend and upstream end, and channel confluences that offer both sandbars and scour holes.
In rivers and reservoirs that have current pushing through them, current breaks with moving water immediately beside or above them also hold concentrations of feeding catfish. The presence of cover, including boulders or timber, also tends to sweeten a hole.
Food availability is also a factor. Mussel beds and clam beds can be gold mines, and if you find big concentrations of shad with fish on the bottom beneath them, those fish are likely to be catfish.
Starting with a river or lake map, identify a handful of spots that look likely to produce and that vary some in how they set up. In a reservoir setting, for example, identify some on the main body and others up creek arms.
On the water, use electronics to check out at least a couple of spots that are in the same general area, taking time to look at different depths on a structure to see whether anyone is home and, if so, how they are relating to the structure. Pay careful attention to depths and to whether fish are widespread in an area. If there’s a key area where fish are concentrated, create a GPS icon or, if you plan to fish that area first, drop a floating marker buoy to provide a visual reference.
A CATFISH SET UP & APPROACH
Boat positioning is critical to placing baits in the best places. Consider carefully where the boat should be and devote time to good anchoring. If current is a significant factor, the boat needs to be upstream of where you expect the most fish to be. Bottom lines will only hold directly downstream, so you want long casts to settle among the fish and shorter casts upstream, so current can deliver scent to the fish.
Lacking noteworthy current, you generally want the boat positioned central to the range of depths where you expect fish to be. That said, if the primary structure is a shallow-topped hump or point and you believe some fish will be “on the hill,” it’s better to anchor just off the structure so the boat isn’t directly atop shallow fish.
When possible, use front and back anchors and put plenty of scope in the rope to hold the boat solidly in a single position. Even modest swaying makes it difficult to keep baits in place, lines free of one another and to detect everything going on at the business end of the line. In some river settings, the only practical option is to put out a front anchor only and to fish all lines off the back of the boat.
Once the boat is in place, the basic approach becomes simple. Bait several bottom rigs, cast to strategic places, engage the reels and watch your rods.
In still water, cast all around the boat or fan a spread on each side, taking care to hit different depth or parts of the structure with each cast.
In current, where casts need to be placed downstream, the primary means of spreading offerings and covering a range of depths is with cast length. Work from left to right (or vice versa) with cast length so it’s easy to remember which baits are the farthest downstream of the boat.
As you fish, pay careful attention to which lines get bit. If bites are well distributed, continue using the same spread. However, if most bites occur on baits in one zone, start casting more baits to the same general area. When the concentration is extreme, with virtually all action coming on the baits that are the farthest from the boat, it’s sometimes prudent to bring in the lines and adjust the boat positioning so that zone becomes the center of the range. Before making such a move, drop a marker buoy where you are to provide a visual reference that allows you to reposition to just the right place.
CATFISH BAIT & TACKLE
Several kinds of bait work well for channel catfish, and the best choice would be a discussion for another article, another time. Catfish find food by scent and by taste buds on their skin, though, so strong-smelling baits work best. Because mature channel cats eat a lot of baitfish and crawfish, baits with a meaty smell often attract the largest fish.
Good bait types for this approach include, but certainly are not limited to, chicken or turkey livers, shrimp, cut fish, dead minnows and dip baits, whether commercially produced or homemade. Livers and dip baits work especially well in current because the scent get carried downstream in the current and serves as a chum line.
Whatever the bait, it’s tough to beat a simple sliding sinker rig, with a weight on the main line, a barrel swivel, a section of leader and a hook. Egg weights are the norm, but flat-sided in-line sinkers or pyramid sinkers provide a good option for presentations on significant slopes because they don’t roll. Whatever the shape, you need enough weight for comfortable casting and to hold the rig solidly in place, based on depth and the amount of wind and current.
Bait selection dictates hook selection. Livers and dip baits call for treble hooks, with the hook normally coupled with a piece of sponge or a dip worm for the dip bait. For other baits, circle hooks matched to the size of the offering work well for a stationary approach because when the catfish run with baits, they normally hook themselves.
Rod-and-reel combinations need not be anything super specific. Most medium to medium-heavy spinning or baitcasting tackle will work fine, although the long end of the rod range is generally best for lobbing sometimes-heavy and awkward rigs. Line in the 14- to 20-pound range suits most situations. In big rivers with strong current and deep holes and greater potential for extra-large cats, 30- to 50-pound braid is better suited for the job.
Rod holders, although not critical, are certainly beneficial for watching rods and keeping them secure but accessible when fish bite. A large, sturdy landing net, likewise, is not critical to the approach but highly beneficial.
STAY OR GO?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer to the question of when it becomes time to try another spot. It’s largely a gut feeling thing that depends on how much interesting stuff you saw on the graph, the number of other spots you feel good about, and the amount of action you’ve gotten in a spot, among other things.
Channel cats congregate in pretty good numbers during the summer, so you’re unlikely to fish out a spot. They also don’t move a lot, except as day gives way to night, without a major change in conditions. Therefore, If the action starts strong and tapers, the fish most likely just slipped out of feeding mode — waiting them out will do you more good than taking the time to move to a new spot and set up again.
That said, even inactive channel catfish have trouble completely resisting easy meals. Therefore, if you put out a good spread and have zero activity for 30 or 40 minutes, it’s probably time to move along.
Going back to the gut feeling, if you’re catching occasional fish but just feel like the action should be better, pull anchor and try another spot or two. You can always return to where you were catching a few, if need be, and you might just find something far better in another spot.
UNDER THE STARS
Don’t overlook the virtue of an after-hours approach. Although cats will feed by day or by night, they generally become more active after the sun goes down and will go on the move with feeding specifically in mind. The overall approach to anchoring for cats differs little by day and night, but a few details do change.
Related to the fish and locations, cats move notably shallower to feed at night, moving farther up points, onto flats along inside of channel bends and to the heads of holes. They don’t move far, so the same types of locations hold fish. They simply stray to the shallow ends of the structures, so it’s important to set up accordingly.
From a practical standpoint, darkness adds challenges for rigging, setting up and detecting strikes. A simple headlamp offers great virtue for rigging, baiting hooks and watching lines because it’s directed wherever you look and allows your hands to remain free. Glow-tip rods are nice if you do a lot of night fishing. Tips of standard rods can also be modified with glow tape or glow paint.
As a final consideration, moving less frequently generally works the best for night fishing simply because of the reduced practicality of riding around and setting up. A great nighttime approach is to arrive an hour or so before dark to scout spots, make a plan and get set up in the best-looking spot before it gets completely dark. And, make sure your cooler is big enough.